Bonhoeffer’s Birthday

From Fred Sanders, at The Scriptorium Daily, posted yesterday on Bonhoeffer’s birthday.

If you were only going to say one thing about theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), you would tell the story that led up to his death in a Nazi prison on April 9, 1945, at age 39. But today is the anniversary of his birth, so here is a reflection Bonhoeffer’s way of living a Christian life: It was polyphonic. It means hearing at least two melodies simultaneously.

Writing from prison to his friend Eberhard Bethge on May 20, 1944, Bonhoeffer tried to give counsel about how to hold all the scattered pieces of life together during the stresses, the actual bombings, of war. Bonhoeffer, engaged but behind bars, strengthened his friend who was married, had a new baby, and feared the threat of possible wartime separation. He shared with his friend the following powerful meditation on human love and divine love:

There’s always a danger in all strong, erotic love that one may lose what I might call the polyphony of life. What I mean is that God wants us to love him eternally with our whole hearts –not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. One of these contrapuntal themes (which have their own complete independence but are yet related to the cantus firmus) is earthly affection. Even in the Bible we have the Song of Songs; and really one can imagine no more ardent, passionate, sensual love than is portrayed there (see 7:6). It’s a good thing that the book is in the Bible, in face of all those who believe that the restraint of passion is Christian (where is there such restraint in the Old Testament?). Where the cantus firmus is clear and plain, the counterpoint can be developed to its limits. The two are “undivided and yet distinct,” in the words of the Chalcedonian Definition, like Christ in his divine and human natures. May not the attraction and importance of polyphony in music consist in its being a musical reflection of this Christological fact and therefore of our vita christiana? This thought didn’t occur to me till after your visit yesterday. Do you see what I’m driving at? I wanted to tell you to have a good, clear cantus firmus; that is the only way to a full and perfect sound, when the counterpoint has a firm support and can’t come adrift or get out of tune, while remaining a distinct whole in its own right. Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going. Perhaps a good deal will be easier to bear in these days together, and possibly also in the days ahead when you’re separated. Please, Eberhard, do not fear and hate the separation, if it should come again with all its dangers, but rely on thecantus firmus. –I don’t know whether I’ve made myself clear now, but one so seldom speaks of such things… (from p. 303 of my old edition of the Letters and Papers from Prison)


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  • As I read his understanding of the cantus firmus, I thought of the foundational rhythm of Psalm 136. I understand Bonhoeffer to say that the foundational theme is God-in-Christ, and then the other melodies need to harmonize with & counter-point from it. I didn’t understand “polyphonic” as synonymous w/ Sanders’ description though, because “hearing at least two melodies simultaneously” might imply that all the melodies have equal volume & impact. (Given his quote of Bonhoeffer, though, my distinction may simply be more exact language usage than Sanders’. 🙂 )If one doesn’t have the base melody to which the other melodies refer, we’d end up with cacophony rather than beautiful music.